The New York Times has posed at Room for Debate: How to Ensure and Improve Teacher Quality. As an opinion blog designed to offer debate, and thus differing perspectives, we should expect a spectrum of voices—at least that is the appearance.
So let’s start with a broader perspective: Voices in the media addressing education are inversely proportional to the expertise in the field:
Therefore, I think it is fair—and not ad hominem—to clarify the background and experiences of the five debaters selected by the NYT to frame the national debate about teacher quality:
- Amanda Ripley, journalist, who gained a great deal of national acclaim for her Time cover-story of Michelle Rhee (who eventually left her role in DC under a cloud of suspicion for testing fraud). Ripley has no K-12 classroom experience.
- Eric Hanushek, economist. Hanushek has no K-12 classroom experience.
- Mercedes Schneider, 20+-year K-12 classroom teacher who is also an active blogger about education reform.
- Jal Mehta, Associate Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (with a PhD in sociology). I can find no information on any K-12 teaching experience, but he has written several books on education.
- Kaya Henderson, Chancellor DCPS with degrees in international relations and leadership (not education). Henderson has K-12 teaching experience.
Any fair person can see this line up is skewed in much the same way that most mainstream journalism distorts the narrative about teacher quality and education.
But let’s add just a couple more details.
Henderson’s background, like Ripley’s, significantly overlaps with Rhee (Henderson served under Rhee at DCPS, although her bio linked above conveniently doesn’t include Rhee’s name) as well as Teach for America and The New Teacher Project, “a spin-off of TFA…originally led by Michelle Rhee.”
And if all this seems to some to be more about the people than the substance of their claims, let’s add a closer look at Hanushek’s first paragraph:
Despite decades of study and enormous effort, we know little about how to train or select high quality teachers. We do know, however, that there are huge differences in the effectiveness of classroom teachers and that these differences can be observed.
Without even a hyperlink or any evidence, Hanushek discounts the entire field of teacher education in the first sentence (which is factually untrue), and then characterizes teacher quality with “huge,” although the research base shows teacher quality’s impact on measurable student outcome is quite small (and note whose work is included in the synthesis of teacher quality research below):
But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects [emphasis added]. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998;Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).
At best, Hanushek’s opinion opens with inaccurate, unsubstantiated, and misleading claims.
More of the claims in the five opinions included are factually unsupported than supported, but the focus and the rhetoric maintain a false argument about teacher quality as well as the need for mostly ineffective reform strategies that do not serve the interests of students, communities, teachers, or public education.
Politicians, self-serving organizations (such as TFA), and think tanks promoting bunkum benefit from the inordinate misinformation included, but not genuine education reform aimed at the single greatest problem facing our society and our schools: inequity.
This version of Room for Debate is yet another tired example of an ironic fact: In the debate over teacher quality, there is little room for the truth or the voices of life-long teachers who have served their students and their communities.